Many people will know James Rebanks’ first book, The Shepherd’s Life. Now he has written a lyrical and passionate account of his life on a Lake District upland farm inherited from his grandfather and in the area where his family has lived for at least 600 years.
The book is in three parts. First are memories of growing up in the 1980s and particularly of learning about farming, mostly from his grandfather, and realising that it is the life he wanted. His grandfather was a great teacher, mainly by doing rather than saying things, and was looked down on by some of his neighbours for sticking to the old ways.
Second is an account of the period of growing industrial farming and monocultures, not at all suited to fell farms, including looking at what was happening in Australia and the Midwest of the United States. This is the time when his father was in charge and was desperately trying to keep the family’s head above water.
Finally there is the recent past and a look to the future in the section labelled Utopia. Increasingly James comes to see his role as reverting to much of what his grandfather had done in terms of a rotational mixed farm where animals and crops work together and his growing sense of the environmental needs of the country. This is first sparked by reading Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and continues with working with ecologists to bring back much of what had been lost in recent decades –such as small fields with new boundaries and wildlife areas. The devastating floods of 2015 which swept down the river Eden as far as Carlisle were the start of rewilding the becks and streams to store much more flood water and bring back many species such as otters that had disappeared. It is realistic in saying that there is not one single way forward for farming and that there has to be a balance between food production and improving the environment.
Through the book are accounts of his family and the way in which his children have learned just as James did from his grandfather.
Some people may have followed the Twitter feed @herdyshepherd1 which for years gave us pictures of his beloved Herdwick sheep and sheepdogs and now is following the changes to the farm with the planting of 12,000 trees being planted and the changes to the rivers.